Two experiments in reading and translating brainwaves have allowed researchers to help an injured man walk, and enabled others to read minds from over a mile away.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

September 25, 2015

5 Min Read
<p align="left">University of Washington researchers used this experimental rig to allow a person to control the hand of another person from a distance.</p>

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Quick! What am I thinking?

If researchers at the University of Washington have anything to say about it, you'll soon know because I'll be able to transfer my thoughts to you over the Internet. And if that's not enough cool for one week, researchers at University of California, Irvine, have helped a man walk after a spinal cord injury by translating his thoughts into movement for his legs.

We're getting closer than ever to decoding and using human thought in all sorts of new technologies.

Let's start with telepathy. To be 100% accurate, telepathy isn't the right word. When we think of telepathy, at least in a sci-fi sense, it is transmitting thoughts or images directly from one brain to another. In the University of Washington study, the Internet was the conduit between two brains.

[ There are more dangerous things to do with the brain. Read Predicting Your Future By Scanning Your Brain. ]

The researchers connected volunteers over a mile apart via a special cap and an Internet connection and asked them to play 20 Questions. One volunteer would be shown a picture of an object. Another volunteer over a mile away would send a question via a touchscreen to the first volunteer. The electroencephalography (EEG) cap on the first volunteer translated "yes" or "no" answers back to the guessing volunteer. A special device would translate the answer and, using a signal to stimulate a part of the brain, would "send" the answer to the second volunteer's brain. They could then ask more questions until they could make a guess.

The volunteers were able to guess the object 72% of the time, versus only 18% during control rounds.

Here it is in action:

As you can see, it is still a rather slow process. Of course, it works mostly by pushing a cursor in our mind, than really processing language. So there's a long way to go, but this is believed to be the first brain-to-brain connection made through language.

Previously, the same research team was able to connect two people using similar EEG caps to allow one person to move the body of another person.

The key for both the movement and the language is to refine the signal. These experiments are both proof of concept, but they have a long way to go to be truly useful.

How useful could it be? An experiment at UC Irvine made a man walk again after seven years of paralysis. The concept is fairly simple. We know that the brain sends signals to the muscles to move. When the spine is injured, it cuts off those signals, but it doesn't stop the brain from being able to make those signals. So, if you can send those signals via another route, they should work.

UC Irvine researchers needed to locate the part of the brain that controlled the man's walking so they had him "walk" using a virtual reality game until they could capture the signals. Then, using similar EEG technology, they captured and transmitted those brain signals through electrodes into the man's muscles.

This is what it looks like:

Sure, it is a bit jerky and he needs a walker. But this is a man taking his first steps since a horrible accident. The researchers will probably be able to refine the signals over time. They are looking to expand the trial from a single person to 30 people. It represents an amazing opportunity to bring mobility back to people who have lost it.

What else can this technology do? For starters, I'd imagine it could replace our phones. A little brain implant (or funny hat) and a WiFi signal is all you'd need once we learned to parse the language more completely.


I could also see this being used to replace typing and even voice activation on computers. Do you think faster than you type? I do. Imagine that big report you spent all night writing simply appearing on the page because you had a computer hooked to a skull cap.

This is one way to make artificial limbs. We've seen it already happen. We actually think we can refine them to the point we can restore sense of touch. Sending signals from the brain to the computer was one step. Now, sending them back to the brain is the next step.

Of course, we've seen cars get hacked. Imagine if your thoughts were hacked, or your artificial limbs were hacked. I mean, someone is going to do it, if only to make someone dance to "Uptown Funk." It is a frightening future, but I suspect one which people would be willing to face to get their mobility back.

How far away are we on this? Probably depends on what you want to do with it. We have decades probably before we are able to refine the walking capabilities. First the trial has to expand, and then it needs approval. Then someone has to learn to mass produce it and incorporate it into basic therapy. We're also far away on telepathy as a communication device.

But we are starting to see more mind-controlled devices. Perhaps we'll see mind-to-computer technology advance in the next few years, so we can think about producing it for some specialty industries. No matter what, it has a promising future, so long as the security concerns can be worked out.

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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